US officials seeking talks on Philippines’ defence procurement

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte talks defence equipment with the US. (Reuters pic)

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday said three members of US President Donald Trump’s cabinet had sought a dialogue about Manila’s procurement plans for defence equipment.

Duterte said he had received a letter signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirming Washington’s “strongest support” for the Philippines’ effort to modernise its military.

Duterte’s disclosure follows advice last week from a visiting Pentagon official, Randall Schriver, against buying Russian weapon systems and platforms.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart this week about the possibility of buying Russian arms, local media said.

The US government’s letter, which Duterte read during a military event in his hometown Davao, said the “special relationship” between the two countries “will only grow stronger by increasing our dialogue and cooperation especially on security”.

The letter noted Manila’s recent decision to procure Bell combat utility helicopters and Cessna utility aircraft. Bell and Cessna are both part of Textron Inc.

“We hope to partner in all the significant defence procurement,” the US officials were quoted as saying in the letter.

The US embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to Reuters’ request for comment.

Duterte, however, said what he needed were attack helicopters and small planes for counter-insurgency operations.

He expressed willingness to meet the three US officials, but said he would not go to the United States for the dialogue.

Duterte has vowed to buy brand-new military equipment to fight twin Maoist and Muslim rebellions, and no longer accept second-hand weapons from the United States.

The Philippines under Duterte has forged closer ties with both China and Russia involving trade and defence cooperation.

Manila scrapped a deal to buy assault rifles from the United States after some US legislators campaigned to block the sale, citing concerns over Duterte’s bloody anti-narcotics campaign.